Publication Date: Wednesday, October 02, 2002
M-A High at 50: Graduates from five decades reflect on their high school years and education
M-A High at 50: Graduates from five decades reflect on their high school years and education
(October 02, 2002)
By David Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer
With Menlo-Atherton High School in Atherton celebrating its 50th anniversary this week, including an open house party on campus Saturday, many M-A alumni from earlier decades are praising the school for its academic excellence, competitive sports programs and a student body that reflects the real world.
At the same time, some more recent graduates, while appreciating the diverse student body, have expressed disappointment about their academic experiences at M-A and said they would have liked more attention from the school. These alumni look back and see at least two schools under one roof: one for well-prepared students and another for the least prepared, with students in between feeling somewhat shortchanged.
A sampling of alumni views from M-A's five decades of operation may shed some light on the school's history.
Excellence for some
"The academic level was very high [at M-A]. It was very stimulating," said Mark Flegel, a member of the class of 1962 and the owner of Flegel's Furniture in Menlo Park.
All kinds of students were together in the same classrooms. Students lacking in study and organizational skills were grouped with those who were "disciplined and smart. ... That can rub off on the others if they're so inclined," he said.
"M-A was a wonderful place to go after having gone to Sequoia [high school]," said Carole Olson, a 1954 graduate. "You could join just about any organization. The possibilities there were greater." She said she found the school "very interesting and stimulating."
Jerry Juhl, who graduated in 1956 and later became the head writer for movies and TV shows featuring The Muppets, concurred with these assessments. "I learned to love writing and to love the language [at M-A]," he said. "I discovered writing as a really challenging and wonderful thing to do with your life."
Elizabeth Black, a 1976 graduate and now a fitness director in Ukiah, California, said she felt prepared for college after attending M-A. "I studied pretty hard in high school and got pretty good grades, so I had that as a foundation."
Ms. Black credited former M-A football coach Ben Parks as her inspiration to begin fitness training, eventually leading to her current occupation. "He was very entertaining and motivating," she said.
Jordana Pestrong, from the class of 1985, strongly endorsed the school. "I got a great education. I was very well prepared for college," she said. "[M-A] was a great springboard to move off into other directions. It provided a great foundation for those who wanted to take advantage of it."
"I believe that if the child didn't have a natural learning ability and their parents weren't 100 percent behind them, then M-A wasn't the best place to go to school," said Tim Moilanen, who graduated in 1985.
Mr. Moilanen took some of the responsibility himself. He said he could have studied harder and done his homework more regularly. But he said he didn't feel all the teachers were sufficiently involved in their students' education.
"We could have used a kick in the pants from the staff there," Mr. Moilanen said. "Some of the staff just didn't tolerate some of the personalities. If you were halfway a cut-up, they'd stereotype you as someone who didn't need help."
George Loew, from the class of 1992, said he found out as a student at Stanford University that he could have made more of his high school years. "Academically, [M-A] wasn't as challenging as it could have been, I found out later. ... If you've got it together and are pushing yourself, you will take advantage of the opportunities [at M-A]."
But Mr. Loew also preferred not to make excuses for himself. "At the time, I was kind of a punk," he said. M-A has a tough challenge, he said, in attempting to meet the needs of a very wide range of people.
Mark Christiansen, another 1985 graduate, described M-A during his years there as "a pretty chaotic place." He said he'd had a few good teachers, but recalled some whose attitude seemed to be: "Tough luck. If you think you can do better and you're not getting better, you're on your own."
But he noted that he wasn't all that interested in high school and was, in a way, determined not to like it. He said he attended M-A mainly to get away from the private school environment he'd experienced in grade school. He said he turned over a new leaf at Pomona College, where he graduated Phi Betta Kappa with honors.
Stan Ogren, a biology teacher at M-A who retired in 1997 after a 35-year career there, said the school does not have a homogenous population and has "a tremendous number" of students at the advanced and lowest levels. "M-A makes a tremendous effort on the ends of the spectrum," he said.
"Menlo-Atherton has always been an exquisitely complex school," said current Principal Eric Hartwig, "and it has always endeavored to propel students into higher levels of achievement."
"While one group may get more recognition through the advanced placement program, and while another group may get more resources through special state funding, I am extremely confident that the 'middle' students at M-A receive an excellent education," Mr. Hartwig said.
Diversity on campus
When Claibonn Mallett graduated in 1964, it was his fourth year in California. He'd come to M-A as a freshman directly from Louisiana and what he called "a completely segregated society."
Mr. Mallett said he was probably helped in his effort to integrate himself at M-A because he came from a family setting in which he learned to treat others as he would want to be treated.
"So much was going on [at that time]," he said, "from integration to everybody fighting for their rights ... women's rights, Haight-Ashbury. I remember M-A being part of that."
Three years later, on September 18, 1967, M-A was dealing with another kind of fight, a race riot on campus, which closed the school for four days. Douglas Murray, the new principal in 1967, said a group of outsiders started it during a mid-morning break when everyone was between classes.
About 55 students were hurt, he said, but none so badly that they had to be hospitalized. Although there wasn't another riot that year, there were incidents -- kids were occasionally shoved around in bathrooms -- and tensions remained high.
In his search for ways to ease tensions, Mr. Murray said he decided to scour Northern California for an African American to fill the position of head football coach. He found Ben Parks, the assistant coach at Stockton High School.
"Thank God, Stockton was reasonable and let him make the transfer," Mr. Murray said. "We were lucky as the devil to get him."
"Ben could take a stick and give a [misbehaving] kid a whack on the rump. I don't know of another man who could do that," Mr. Murray said.
The 1968-69 school year began with another incident, at an impromptu meeting of students in the multipurpose room. Mr. Murray said he decided to check it out and when he arrived, he was asked by the group's leader to resign. At the time, similar demands were being made at college campuses, in turmoil amid protests over the Vietnam War.
"I'm not surprised that you're coming out with this [request]," he recalled saying while suppressing a smile, "but you're not going to get it."
At some point during that school year, pairs of white and African American parents began patrolling the halls, Mr. Murray said. In the fall of 1969, that hall patrol evolved into United M-A, a group of parents, students and teachers who worked to lower racial tensions.
M-A students who lived through that period recall a difficult time. Frank Merrill, who graduated in 1968 and whose parents helped start United M-A, remembers a lot of intimidation on campus. "Mr. Parks and a lot of other people put a lot of time in to heal the wounds," he said. "It took a long time to get that straightened out."
Jody Parker, a member of the class of 1976, recalled another riot sometime during her junior or senior year when, upon arriving on campus after lunch, she saw police on the roofs and kids running out of the halls. She said she remembered opening the doors of the car, letting kids pile in and leaving campus.
Robert Salome, who graduated in 1972, said he appreciated M-A's diversity, coming as he did from a Catholic grammar school in New York with classmates who were either Irish or Italian. At M-A, he said he met kids from Hispanic, African American, Chinese and South American cultures. "You couldn't go through a day without meeting somebody from a different type of background," he said.
In his current occupation, Mr. Salome said, he travels the world. He credits his ability to interact smoothly with others to his experiences at M-A.
E-mail David Boyce at dboyce@AlmanacNews.com.
HISTORY OF M-A
For historic information about Menlo-Atherton High School, see the special publication on M-A's 50th anniversary publication, inserted in last week's Almanac. Copies will be available at an open house on Saturday, October 5, on the M-A High campus.